Is China trying to play mediator in Central Asia with offer to include Afghanistan in trade plan?

Beijing also keen to boost anti-terrorism exchanges with Kabul to ensure security across the region, military chief says

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 December, 2017, 10:04pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 December, 2017, 1:52pm

By offering to include Afghanistan in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project, Beijing may be seeking to mediate in a decades-long dispute between its two neighbours, but analysts have questioned how effective it can be.

“China is concerned about both countries. As a mediator it is trying to get them to communicate, but it won’t get too involved,” Pan Zhiping, head of the Central Asian Studies Institute at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Science, said.

According to a statement released by China’s defence ministry, Xu Qiliang, deputy chairman of the Central Military Commission, told Afghan acting Defence Minister Tariq Shah Bahrami at a meeting in Beijing that China “supports the reconstruction of Afghanistan”.

“China will strengthen military exchanges and anti-terrorism cooperation with Afghanistan to ensure security between the two nations and the region,” he said.

The talks between the two officials came a day after a trilateral meeting between the foreign ministers of China, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Tuesday that China and Pakistan would look at extending their US$57 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor into war-torn Afghanistan.

He said the three countries would tackle “easier, smaller projects first”, but did not specify how Afghanistan would play a part in the “Belt and Road Initiative” – China’s ambitious plan to develop trade and infrastructure links across Asia and into Europe and Africa.

The relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been strained for decades, with each accusing the other of fomenting violence and unrest in their respective territories.

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Beijing’s efforts to bring Afghanistan into the CPEC fold would appear to show it acting as a mediator in Central Asia, but analysts have questioned how successful it can be given the deep-rooted security issues in the region.

“China is trying to increase its influence, and to develop some understanding between Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, an international relations specialist from the National University of Singapore, said.

“But success will depend on how serious they [Pakistan and Afghanistan] are,” he said.

China is keen to help keep the peace between the two neighbours as it fears that any support for Islamist militancy in the region could spill over into Xinjiang, its restive, westernmost region.

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Pan said that another reason Beijing was willing to act as mediator between the two countries was their strategic importance.

“China’s approach is always to stabilise bordering countries,” he said. “If the CPEC links up to Afghanistan, it can ultimately be a gateway to Iran and the Indian Ocean.”

The corridor plan has been facing problems of its own in recent months, however. Despite the two protagonists confirming their long-term commitment to the plan, Pakistani officials said in November that Islamabad had decided not to seek funding from China for the Diamer-Bhasha dam project because Beijing had insisted on taking ownership of it. The Chinese government later dismissed the claims as untrue.

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Du Youkang, head of Pakistan research at Fudan University in Shanghai, said that the security situation in the region had fluctuated as a result of changing US foreign policy. While former President Barack Obama was committed to withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, incumbent Donald Trump was doing the exact opposite.

In August, Trump also called on India to play a bigger role in keeping the peace in Afghanistan, after earlier warning Pakistan against harbouring terrorist organisations.

Security issues aside, Du said he was unsure what role Afghanistan had to play in the CPEC.

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“The CPEC was designed as a bilateral deal,” he said. “The major player is still Pakistan, which has enjoyed a friendly relationship with China. If Afghanistan is able to stabilise, then it could provide a stepping stone for the CPEC to expand into more central Asian countries, but given the security threats at this stage, China will remain focused on Pakistan.”

On the subject of India’s role in the region, Chaturvedy said that New Delhi’s relationship with Kabul was robust, and it did not need to “respond” to Beijing’s latest move to “cosy up to Afghanistan”.